Threat assessments key to preventing next school shooting

Panel calls for more school resource officers and counselors but not new restrictions on firearms.

OLYMPIA — A task force has come up with several ideas to better identify and stop those pondering a school shooting before they pull the trigger — and none involve new restrictions on firearms.

Members reached consensus that school officials and law enforcement officers are already working hard to assess the possible threat of violence on campuses. What is needed is more money to hire school resource officers and mental health professionals, and increased training to ensure any relevant information is shared consistently among school professionals and law enforcement.

“I think the group got the sense we were on the right track and we are doing the right thing. Their message is ‘Do more of it and do it better’,” said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Lawmakers established the Mass Shootings Work Group in March through a proviso in the state supplemental budget.

It had representatives from city and county law enforcement, the Washington State Patrol, and the offices of the attorney general and the superintendent of public instruction. There also were representatives from two- and four-year colleges, the ACLU, the Washington Coalition of Crime Victims Advocates and Frontier Behavioral Health.

The budget proviso directed the group to “develop strategies for identification and intervention against potential perpetrators of mass shootings, with an emphasis on school safety.”

On Nov. 7, the group compiled 25 recommendations encompassing school resource officers, student threat assessment processes, extreme risk protection orders and public education.

Recommendations are not prioritized but one of the more significant ones urges lawmakers to mandate that every public school, college and university employ a multi-stage threat assessment process.

In such a process, educators in concert with mental health professionals and law enforcement officers are constantly seeking to identify and assist students at risk of harming themselves or others. They are looking for signs, the timely discovery of which could prevent deadly shootings like those at a high school in Marysville in 2014, or in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year.

Another work group recommendation calls for providing more dollars to hire counselors, psychologists, mental health professionals, family engagement coordinators and school social workers throughout the K-12 system.

Having mental health services available and accessible can be effective in detecting when a person may be on a path to plotting an act of violence, they concluded.

Another recommendation is for state funding to hire more school resource officers (SROs) for elementary and secondary campuses. Standardized training should be required for every SRO, they concluded. They stressed the importance of getting clear guidelines in law.

They also want adequate funds to ensure a law enforcement presence on community and technical college campuses and money to conduct a statewide “see something say something” campaign.

A final area involved the extreme risk protection orders. These are court orders to prevent a person considered at risk of harming themselves or others from purchasing or possessing a firearm for a limited period of time. The work group suggested changing state law allow these protection orders to be obtained for a juvenile.

But it did not adopt firearms-related recommendations proposed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

One sought to require that buyers of semiautomatic rifles be at least 21 years old, the same age required for buying a handgun. Another sought to enact criminal sanctions for unsafe storage of weapons. Panel members, including a representative of the AG’s office, set those aside because they are elements of Initiative 1639 which voters approved this month.

The panel also did not support a recommendation calling on the Legislature to limit the sale of magazines to 10 rounds with exemptions for law enforcement, military and recreational shooting ranges. Ferguson tried unsuccessfully to get lawmakers to enact such a limit in the 2018 session.

“We intend to submit a ‘minority’ statement to be included with the report expressing our view that this should have been included as a recommendation,” emailed Dan Jackson, a spokesman for Ferguson. “Restrictions on high capacity magazines directly relate to the charge of the work group.”

The work group’s final report, along with any addenda from members, will be given to lawmakers by Dec. 1.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, who drafted the budget language establishing the task force, attended the initial meeting in April. He told members he was influenced by what occurred in Parkland, where it appears authorities missed warning signs about the 19-year-old shooter. He said he wanted to know if such gaps exist in Washington and, if so, how to bridge them.

Upon seeing the suggestions, he praised the efforts and said he would introduce legislation to enact many of their ideas.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos

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